By Maurits Elen
Roughly 1,000 factory workers left their work stations and blocked a highway this week to protest extreme working conditions at their factory which produces parts for Apple and IBM in Shenzhen. The protest is the latest in a growing series of labor disputes in China, highlighting a need for truly independent trade unions amid worker fears over the future of China’s economy.
The factory workers, many who work making keyboards for Apple, were said to be working 100 to 120 hours of overtime a month, experiencing a high rate of workplace injuries, suffering mass layoffs of older workers, and frequently being verbally abused by managers.
Shortly after their protest began, the workers were surrounded by hundreds of police officers in riot gear. However, the situation never escalated and eventually the strikers dispersed after they received a promise from the company to reduce the amount of overtime.
According to an official statement by Apple on the labor conditions at its global suppliers, there is much room for improvement. Earlier this year, 137 workers at a factory in Suzhou were found seriously injured by a toxic chemical used in making screens for iPhones.
Apple, which recently has been listed as the most desirable employer in China, has also seen a string of employee suicides since 2010 at one of its biggest suppliers, Foxconn. The suicides were allegedly triggered by the high pressure of the company’s working environment. A recent interview with Foxconn workers gave a depressing insight into the lives of this young labor force.
“There has been an intensification of labor unrest in the past week that is probably the most significant spike in unrest since the summer of 2010,” said Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labor advocacy group that monitors unrest in China.
According to the Financial Times the strikes come amid mounting concerns about the global economy, which is suffering from the European sovereign debt crisis and a weak recovery in the US. Fears about the Chinese economy grew on Wednesday after a manufacturing index compiled by HSBC fell to levels not seen since March 2009.
More than 400 female workers at a bra factory in Shenzhen protested this week by cutting off power to the factory after a manager told one of the employees to ”jump off a roof and go to the hell”.
And last week, more than 10,000 workers clashed with the police in a protest over layoffs and wage cuts in Dongguan at a factory which makes New Balance, Adidas and Nike shoes.
Editor’s note: A public relations executive from IBM’s Greater China Group has reached out to Shanghaiist. The company denies that the factory in the report above is an IBM supplier.